Congressional Republicans have opened a new front in the deficit wars. In addition to demanding trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for raising the nation's debt limit, they now are vowing not to act without first holding votes in each chamber on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
The ploy is more posturing on an issue that already has seen too much grandstanding. But it is posturing with a dangerous purpose: to distort further the terms of the budget fight, and in the process, to entrench Republicans' no-new-taxes-ever stance.
It won't be enough for Democrats merely to defeat the amendment when it comes up for a vote. If there is to be any sensible deal to raise the debt limit, they also need to rebut the amendment's false and dangerous premises -- not an easy task, given the idea's populist appeal.
What could be more prudent than balancing the books every year? In fact, forcibly balancing the federal budget each year would be like telling families they cannot take out a mortgage or a car loan, or do any other borrowing, no matter how sensible the purchase or how creditworthy they may be.
Worse, the balanced-budget amendment that Republicans put on the table is far more extreme than just requiring the government to spend no more than it takes in each year in taxes.
The government would be forbidden from borrowing to finance any spending, unless a super-majority agreed. In addition to mandating a yearly balance, both the House and Senate versions would cap the level of federal spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product.
That would amount to a permanent limit on the size of government -- at a level last seen in the 1960s, before Medicare and Medicaid, before major environmental legislation such as the Clean Water Act, and long before the baby-boom generation was facing retirement.
The spending cuts implied by such a cap are so Draconian that even the budget recently passed by House Republicans -- and condemned by the public for its gutting of Medicare -- would not be tough enough.
Under the proposed amendment, the spending cap would apply even if the government collected enough in taxes to spend above the limit, unless two-thirds of lawmakers voted to raise the cap. More likely, antitax lawmakers would vote to disburse the money via tax cuts. Once enacted, tax cuts would be virtually irreversible, since a two-thirds vote in both houses would be required to raise any new tax revenue.
It isn't easy to change the Constitution. First, two-thirds of both the Senate and House must approve an amendment, and then at least 38 states must ratify it. But expect to hear a lot about the idea in the days ahead and in the 2012 political campaign, with Republicans eagerly attacking Democrats who sensibly voted no.
Democrats undeniably have a tougher argument to make. A fair and sustainable budget deal will require politically unpopular choices on programs to cut and taxes to raise.
Americans deserve to hear the truth: There is no shortcut, no matter what Republicans claim. Nor is there urgency to impose deep spending cuts while the economy is weak, as Republicans insist.
What is needed is enactment of a thoughtful deficit-reduction package, to be carried out as the economy recovers. If politicians respect voters enough to tell them the truth, voters may reward them at the polls.
-- New York Times